“The South African Songbook: Celebrating 25 Years of Democracy” Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra:
On September 12, the day after the most emotionally heavy day in New York City history, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra kicked off its 32 season in a much more celebratory mood with an examination of the South African songbook of the last 25 years — to coincide with the country’s historic first free elections.
The top-tier big band was joined in Rose Hall by 8 of its South African equivalents for a dozen songs that ran the emotional gamut but skewed toward the uplifting.
Having visited South Africa in a heavenly trip last year, I returned home with barely an elementary knowledge of of the indigenous music of South Africa — of 60 million people and 11 official languages — save for Hugh Masekala and Miriam Makeba, but enriched in about 60 million other ways.
That’s a roundabout way of saying this concert had my attention since its announcement. This is also a good time to admit a front-row center seat was a heavy influence on the raving endorsement that follows.
Big bands haven’t been financially feasible for decades and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra — with the indefatigable Wynton Marsalis at its helm — is the last of its kind and a position in it is likely one of the loftiest in jazz. No wonder that the program featured arrangements by eight orchestra members.
Marsalis welcomed the season with the introduction of the first song, the Art Blakey-inspired “Lulu in Adderley Street,” a wonderful swinging choice with an immediately attention-grabbing solo from saxophonist Paul Nedzela, before ceding to co-emcees Vuyo Sotashe (South African vocalist) and Seton Hawkins (J@LC resident educator), who provided historical framework to every song and guest artist.
Given that this was a concert celebrating democracy the first concert of the season (and the first of three nights) proved that J@LC still operates as a ridiculously inclusive unit despite the star wattage at its helm. Extremely confident arrangements and solos are probably a given when your ensemble includes saxophonists Ted Nash, Sherman Irby and Victor Goines, trumpeter Marcus Printup and trombonist Vincent Gardner, each a bandleader in his own right but that doesn’t make them any less impressive.
Among the two South African guest artists, three took the show to different levels. The first was pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, whose grasp of percussion differed from the rest of the South Africans, a trait of origin more than style. But he still swings like hell. The second was singer Melanie Scholtz, an internationally recognized opera singer and the closest we get to South African superstardom. She weaved a spell on the J@LC audience with “Weave Me Fantasy, Child,” which melded the worlds of jazz, opera house and Broadway theater. The saxophonist McCoy Mrubata slid in like a member of the orchestra if not a bandleader when he participated. He’s a world-class talent. No doubt. Hopefully New York continues to see more of him.
That’s not to say any collaboration fell-short. Pianist Thandi Ntuli sensed the historic heft of the concert, as did the guest singers, and an initial tentativeness gave way to confidence.
The second set built on the momentum. Irby’s masterfully constructed take on the traditional “Qulu Kwedini” included a hand-clapping section and fanfare. I’ll take a leap and call it the highlight of the evening.
South Africa currently isn’t without its problems. No country is. But 25 years of democracy and new music are both reasons for celebration.
A closing of Masekla’s “Send Me” turned into the South African equivalent of a singalong like “A Change is Gonna Come” or “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” which included all of the event’s participants and leaving concert goers to return to the reality of a late summer rain with a fraction of a feeling in short supply these days. Hope.